Bjork’s Utopia as Utopia
Bjork’s Utopia is a challenge to our times. In our current age, calling anything “utopia” flies in the face of the prevailing ethos. In an era beset with pronouncements of doom using the word utopia in anything but an ironic sense might seem to be act of folly. We are told, over and over, that things are getting worse and the human race faces doom. In our current age, it has become fashionable to declare that progress is a lie, democracy a sham and human liberty an impossible dream. Authoritarian populism is resurgent. We see the return of magical thinking and the recreation of an enchanted world. More and more we reject reason (and its child, science). We see the most privileged and wealthiest parts of humanity giving up on politics, withdrawing from civic culture into the home or into communities of choice, cutting themselves off from dissenting views and uncomfortable realities. Surrounded by a world of literal miracles and astounding wonders humanity only sees what it has not attained or what it believes it has lost. We see promises broken all around us. The promise of community though technology betrayed as we stare into our smart phones. The limits of the world made clear to us by the very shortening of the distance made possible by modern communications. We have escaped the fetters placed upon us by time only to discover that the world holds no more frontiers, no more new places to discover.
Utopia famously means “good place” and “no place.” Bjork’s new album Utopia is both. Bjork creates an appealing soundscape mixing natural sounds, electronic beats and her own unique voice. Utopia is a true album in the old sense of the word. We open it up and find things that we did not know existed. New sounds, new experiences. It is also an album in the sense that we should listen to it all the way through. It is a song cycle. Like utopia it is a seamless whole.
Utopia is good place, in it the music feels, for the lack of a better term “warm.” Bjork’s voice sooths the listener. But Utopia is also no place because the overall effect of the album is fleeting. Once the album ends the listener is hard pressed to remember any song or words. Perhaps this is also like utopia, a dream that exists at the edge of our consciousness, always there, but always just out of reach.
Utopia also means discovery, finding a new and better place. The album feels like a journey to some previously unknown country. We travel with Bjork from awakening to bliss to loss and finally to acceptance and hope. In the classic works in the utopian canon a traveler awakens to a new world, finds it beautiful, but knows that she can only live in that world if she is willing to lose her old world. There is pain and joy in the realization of utopia.
Utopia also means changing the world as it exists. As Bjork says in the title track “utopia is not elsewhere. it’s here.” In the final track “Future Forever” she says “imagine a future and be in it.” This is utopia in a nutshell, the belief that we can mold the world through acts of choice. That we are not at the mercy of forces beyond our control. For Bjork, the force that molds the world is love, love freely given without fear or coercion.
But Bjork’s Utopia, like all utopias, is ambiguous. Utopia might be a good place. But we have to ask just what sort of good place? Is it a good place that includes all of us? Or is it a good place that is limited to a select few? Is it large and expansive, covering the space of a world, a nation, a city? Or is it small and withdrawn, providing shelter only to us and the ones we choose to love? The answers to these questions are unclear. As we follow Bjork through her songs and music we see her continue return to the theme of fixing the sins and failures of the past to create a clean slate on which we and our children can write a new and better story. How large a story we write, whether in the world or just in our family circle is left for us to decide.
Utopia might best be described as a modification what Michel Foucault called a “heterotopia,” a place “outside of all places.” While Foucault was concerned with real places in a society that fall outside easy characterization, such as cemeteries or brothels, Bjork’s music is both real, as a physical manifestation in a compact disc, cardboard folder, lyric sheet and poster, and unreal, since the music drifts away the moment it is played. The album is a mirror since the music only has meaning when we reflect upon it, just as our reflection only has meaning when we look closely at ourselves. In the end, Utopia, like utopia, is what we make it.
To face the condition of our times and challenge the prevailing gloom with optimism might seem like a fool’s errand. But it is a necessary one. Utopian dreaming provides a means of escaping the dark bounds of the mundane. Since Thomas More coined the term in his Utopia (1516) utopian thought has provided a way to critique our current circumstances and design a better world. Utopia as a dream, a plan, and a desire arose in an era of crisis, a time when what once seemed to be eternal certainties were falling apart. More’s world is much like ours and like More, Bjork presents a new foundation, one built on love, sacrifice and faith in ourselves and in the future.
Today, popular entertainment and even books for children speculate on the collapse of our civilization. Thousands of Americans are getting ready for TEOTWAWKI (the end of the world as we know it). They prepare BOBs (bug out bags) for when it is time to GOOD (get out of Dodge) because they are sure that WTSHTF (when the shit hits the fan) YOYO (you’re on your own). Libertarian billionaires plot to create floating islands of “freedom” beyond the reach of any state (Seasteading). Religious traditionalists pursue the “Benedict Option,” a conscious withdrawal by into intentional communities, as a response to what they see as the terminal decline of western civilization. To see the future with hopeful eyes seems like a fool’s errand. Yet, this is what Bjork does.
Why do contemporary humans seem to long for the end of things? Does it arise from a desire to attain paradise or oblivion? Is it because we are bored and long for some great and final culmination? Do we want to escape the responsibly for our actions which seem to be destroying the planet? Do we secretly know we are evil and worthy of punishment? Are we simply “tired of man” as Nietzsche said? There is no easy answer to the desire for the apocalypse. Perhaps these differing tendencies all share the belief that the ruin of the current social order will reveal a better world. After the collapse a new world will emerge. All the lies and falseness of existing society swept away to reveal new truths, or restore old ones. In Utopia Bjork boldly and unfashionably says that this new world need not be one of pain and suffering but one of joy and mutual commitment to what is good and what is truly human.
Mark Stephen Jendrysik is a professor of Political Science at the University of North Dakota. He has thought, presented, and published on all maters of utopian thought. He is also the author of Explaining the English Revolution: Hobbes and His Contemporaries (Lexington, 2002) and Modern Jeremiahs: Contemporary Visions of American Decline (Rowman and Littlefield, 2008).